Looking Back.

It has been around three months since my chronic pain issues were miraculously relieved. I truly hadn’t expected to find a medication that would take away my pain. I had been using all sorts of narcotics which, while helpful, only lessened the extreme agony I had been feeling. I felt that the suffering I was enduring was a life-long thing that I just had to deal with, and since it seemed to be getting progressively worse, I could also expect to have more and more limitations to my life, especially physically. For someone who loves to climb, kayak and hike, this was a depressing scenario, to say the least.

So it has been months since the last time I felt anything close to agony. I still feel pain, but only when I forget to take my medication in  a timely fashion, and even what discomfort I feel is nothing too horrible. It is quite amazing to me. Consider the following video, from the last winter, when I was in the midst of a horrible attack:

I looked, and felt awful. Here I am a month ago on Bartram’s Rock:

While the two videos are admittedly different, I think it is still pretty obvious how much better I look and feel in the second one. My mother told me recently that I look like I had shed about ten years, and I think she’s right. My skin looks better, my body language has changed, but I think more than anything, the look in my eyes is radically different. I have had numerous people tell me what a change has come over me. That makes me happy, knowing how obvious the improvement is.

I recently had blood work and x-rays done at OHSU, Oregon’s premier hospital, and they all came back normal except for seriously low vitamin D levels, which I am now taking prescription mega-doses of to restore it to normalcy. So no Ankylosing Spondylitis or rheumatoid arthritis. Looks like Fibromyalgia (what I originally thought I had) is the main culprit. Actually, part of what tipped the doctors off is the relief that Tramadol (the med I started taking) gives me, it works for Fibro patients when nothing else will.

I am now in better shape for this time of year than I have been in ages, maybe ever. Usually I cannot really train or condition during the colder, wetter months of the year, but this year I am already in great shape. Got up Mt. Thielsen in around 4 hours, pretty good considering the snow level. When the blister on my ankle heals, I will be returning to the gym again, and push my fitness even further. I will be happy when I can climb Thielsen in 2.5 hours with snow. Nevertheless, this year is looking like it is going to be an awesome year for mountaineering, rock climbing and kayaking, and all thanks to finding the right medication.

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3 Days of Adventure

It began on Saturday, May 5. I accompanied the Intro to Rock Climbing class from Umpqua Community College on their trip to Emigrant Lake in Southern Oregon. Normally I would have gone in the capacity as an assistant instructor, but since I was going to be writing an article about the class, journalistic ethics dictated that I go strictly as a writer, photographer and videographer. We left Roseburg in a UCC van, and began the 2.5 hour trip down Interstate Five. Willie Long, the instructor of the class, used the travel time to quiz the students about their homework from the previous week, which was to find an article about rock climbing to discuss on the trip. The students all had interesting questions from their articles, and the instructors all took turns helping them answer any questions. Soon enough, we arrived in Ashland, and headed east for the short drive to the lake.

I was particularly excited to go on this trip, mostly because I had not climbed at Emigrant Lake before, but also because I would be free to roam and take pictures of the students and teachers in action, something I would normally not be able to do if I had been helping teach.

We parked the van, got gear sorted, and Willie gathered the students for a brief discussion before heading out. Then it was a brief walk along the road before finding the trail along the lake’s northern shore. One downfall about Emigrant Lake is the poison oak — it grows in massive proliferation everywhere, so much so that I am not sure if I have ever seen so much in a single area before. Luckily the trail is fairly wide, and even more fortunate, some considerate souls had come to the crags the day before and cut much of it down.

Students hiking along the north shore of Emigrant Lake in Jackson County, Oregon

We arrived at the cliffs after a ten-minute hike, and I must admit, I was surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be so spectacular. The pictures in the climbing guide made me think it was smaller, less picturesque, and more akin to a roadside quarry than the beautiful, rugged cliff we found ourselves staring up at. Not a huge area by any means, its setting beside the azure waters of the lake while surrounded by the high wooded hills of the Siskiyou Mountains was what really made it special. As soon as we arrived I was glad I came.

The crags and the lake

Once the class had gotten on their harnesses and helmets, Willie went over a brief safety lecture, while the other assistants scrambled to the top of the cliff to set up top-ropes and rappel stations. I accompanied the other assistants, climbing up into an interesting alcove, and scrambling up through a narrow hole to reach the top of the crag. I filmed and took still shots while they set up the ropes, enjoying the freedom of being a writer rather than a teacher. Unfortunately, I had once again forgotten my tripod in my eagerness to go climbing, so I had to make do with hand-held shots. Nevertheless, the footage turned out okay despite some shakiness.

Within a half an hour, the first students were beginning to climb, so I started filming. I had brought along not just my Sony Handycam (which is only 480 resolution), but also my GoPro Hero 2 high definition, wearable action camera, and I asked for student volunteers to put it on as they climbed. A student named Trevor was the first volunteer, and I strapped it to his helmet as he climbed, the first time I had been able record any sort of first-person camera views, and the shots turned out pretty spectacular.

Once the students had settled in and got climbing, Logan, one of the instructors, asked for a belay (the act of controlling the rope) so he could set up another climb, and I volunteered. Once he had led the climb and lowered back down, I decided it was time for myself to climb. Only a short climb of 40 or 50 feet, it took me a short time to complete it. Then it was back to filming.

The beautiful climbing area

During the course of the day, I had made up my mind that this was a place I would have to bring my family. Rock climbing, swimming, hiking, boating, not to mention the quirky town of Ashland (famous for its renowned Shakespeare Festival) nearby. It is a really special place.

The serene beauty of Emigrant Lake from the top of the crags

The day went by far too quickly, and when it was getting obvious that we would soon have to head back to Roseburg, I made sure that I got a few more climbs in. I jumped on a 5.10 route and found it challenging, but I was able to complete it. A short time later I climbed a much easier route in the 5.6-5.7 range, and while I only climbed three routes that day, I got a lot of filming in, and gained some more experience as an outdoor videographer, not to mention that I had gotten to see a fabulous new area.

When it was time to go, we gathered all our gear and belongings and headed back down the path to the parking area, loaded back up in the bus, and headed north on I-5. Half the class was asleep within an hour.

I came home, tired, dusty and happy, but ready for more. I gave myself a short time to rest, but then I had to pack my bags for the next day. I had been planning to climb Mt. Thielsen, “Lightning Rod of the Cascades” for several weeks, and had been already foiled once due to a inaudible alarm, so even though I hadn’t been able to round up a partner for some alpine fun, I had decided to go solo. I packed up the clothes, food and gear I would need, made sure my alarm would work properly this time, then settled down to go to sleep.

I had set my alarm for 5:30, a little later than I would normally have chosen to wake, but considering that I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep, I knew that getting an extra hour of sleep would be more important than leaving earlier. I ended up waking up a little before five, I was so worried my alarm wouldn’t work again. I made coffee, ate a breakfast of yogurt and granola, and headed out shortly after 6 a.m. I headed east on Highway 138, winding along the beautiful North Umpqua river, sharing the road with just a few early morning travelers. I made one stop at the base of Eagle Rock to snap a quick picture, then continued on.

Eagle Rock in the early morning sun

Soon the highway began heading more steeply uphill, the forests of Douglas Firs gave way to Ponderosa Pines, and I knew the mountains were near. I caught sight of Mt. Bailey first, its great rounded bulk appearing through the trees. Then I saw Howlock Mountain, one of the forgotten mountains of the Cascade Range, and shortly after that the unforgettable, towering form of Thielsen appeared, an awe-inspiring sight no matter how many times I see it. I felt my excitement rise. I would soon be at the trailhead.

When I arrived at the pullout for the Mt. Thielsen trail, there was still five feet of snow, and the temperature was a chilly 25 degrees. I got on my warm clothes, sorted my gear, and ten minutes after arriving, I was on my way, happy to find firm snow under my boots.

There had been only one other vehicle in the parking lot, so I knew there was somebody ahead of me, but I never saw them until high on the mountain, nevertheless I still found it reassuring to follow their footprints, whoever they were. At least I would not be the only person on the peak.

Beautiful Mt. Bailey coming into view

I was surprised at how quickly the time passed, and even more surprised when I reached the base of the ridge in a little over an hour. The snow was deep enough that it eliminated many of the switchbacks that would normally have to be followed in summer conditions. The snow also allowed me to head straight uphill in a section of blown-down forest that makes for unpleasant hiking. I was particularly glad to have escaped that part of the trail.

In about two hours and twenty minutes I had reached the base of the final steep ridge, and I was very pleased at my physical condition. If I had not been able to virtually eliminate my chronic pain issues several months earlier, I would have never been able to be in that kind of shape.

Tracks leading up to the main ridge

As I traversed along the beautiful, gently corniced ridge, I could hear the other alpine travelers above me, and soon spotted them climbing about half a mile and several hundred feet above me. I had decided to take my first real rest break before things started getting steeper, so I filmed the two climbers as they moved steadily upwards (I remembered to bring my tripod this time.)

After taking perhaps twenty minutes to eat, drink and recharge, I began climbing again. I followed in the footsteps of the climbers ahead of me, appreciative of their trail-breaking efforts since the snow was much deeper and softer by this time. After about half an hour of steady uphill trudging, I came upon one of the two guys that had been ahead of me. We talked for a short time, and he told me his companion was going to ski down one of the chutes that line the western, upper slope of the peak while he took pictures. I said goodbye, and continued on.

As the angle of the slope increased, the iciness of the snow also increased, to the point where kicking steps was almost impossible, so I found an outcrop of rock to sit down, put on my crampons (the spikes that go on the bottom of a climber’s boots), stowed my trekking poles and busted out the ice-axe. Then I was heading back up.

The lovely lines of the corniced ridge

I had hoped that I would catch up with the other climber (who was actually there to ski, not to summit) before he began his descent, but when I had almost reached the spot where I had last seen him, I heard the sound of skis, and I missed nearly all of his run. Oh well. I continued on.

I reached the point where the actual climbing begins, a two- or three-hundred foot high section of loose, shaley rock that in dry conditions is third class scrambling (the climbing scale goes from 1st class, walking on flat ground, to fifth class, technical climbing) but when covered by rime ice, as it was that morning, is certainly much more challenging. Having crampons on my feet only added to the difficulty. I began scrambling up and around the steep section, and it took me about half an hour to get past it. I was near the summit now.

Nearing the summit pinnacle

I was also close to 9000 feet, and the altitude was slowing me down. There is nothing for it, you just have to keep pushing. I was now traversing around the southern side of the summit pinnacle, on a thirty degree snow slope littered with chunks of ice. As I struggled upwards, more and more blocks of ice fell off the mountain — ahead of me, behind me, all around me — and while none were so big as to be seriously injurious, they were also worrisome in the sense that a surprise hit could easily cause me to lose my balance. The intensity level rose.

My right leg started to cramp, painfully, a real charlie-horse. I was surprised by this, since I have never had this problem climbing before, and it got bad enough that I almost gave up, but I was so close to the summit, and with past failures running through my head, I knew I couldn’t give up that easily, so I pushed through it. At this point, the slope was getting steeper, close to 40 or 45 degrees, and as I headed up, both legs started to cramp. I was getting seriously annoyed at this point, but still refused to surrender. I had a feeling it was due to the steepening angle of the snow, and I could see that if I climbed about 30 feet higher, the angle would relent. I persevered, and sure enough, as soon as I reached the moderate slope, the cramps stopped. I was glad I hadn’t surrendered.

I was really close now, but the amount of ice debris falling off the mountain was getting me downright spooked. I was all alone on the mountain, and I was begining to feel resigned to the fact that I probably would not summit on this day. I wanted, no, I needed to at least get to the base of the summit pinnacle and asses the final, near-vertical pitch before giving up.

I trudged up the final gully, and found myself at 9,100 feet. Only 80 feet seperated me from the summit. I stared up at it, wanting desperately to climb it, and I knew I could, even though it was still fairly covered with rime. As I watched, pieces of ice would break loose every five to ten seconds, over and over again. I thought of my family, my children, my partner, and I knew today was not a day to push it. If I had been up there with a partner, I would have done it, but I was alone. Besides, I have summited five times before, and I would be coming back again, so why worry? This was a training climb anyway. I sat down at the base, took a little break and enjoyed the amazing views, but there was still so much debris raining down, and I was in a vulnerable position, so I only stayed for a few minutes before retreating down the mountain.

On the way down, I met up with several more skiers, one of whom commended me for having the good sense not to summit. I ended up filming him as he hiked up, and then skied down, and later gave him my e-mail address so I could send him the film I took. I got back to the car, and headed back home. Even though I knew I had made the right decision, it still bothered me to have been so close and not summited.

The next day, I woke up, re-packed my bags, and drove twenty minutes back up Highway 138 to the Swiftwater Park Guest House, where I would be meeting Bill Blodgett, owner and head guide of North Umpqua Outfitters. I had asked Bill about interviewing him for an article for the UCC Newspaper, and he had generously offered me a place on board an all-day float down the upper North Umpqua. I have kayaked various sections on our beloved river, but hadn’t managed to take on the most challenging section yet, so I was really pumped about going.

When I got to the Guest House, Bill introduced me to his wife Sharon and the two clients who would be going, Dave and Lynn from Chicago. Dave is an experienced adventurer, having taken many guided floats on rivers all across the U.S., while this would by Lynn’s first experience on whitewater. Shortly after meeting them, our final member of the float, Dale Red Hawk, arrived. Dale is in the guiding program for UCC, and this trip would be some of his final required hours to achieve his certificate. We all changed into wetsuits, loaded into Bill’s Excursion SUV, and headed upriver.

We stopped about half an hour later at the Boulder Flat campground, where the boat ramp is located. Bill took us through a short safety lecture, we got our life jackets on, clambered aboard the raft and shoved off. We were on our way, with Dale and I whooping it up as we began.

Getting ready to take on the North Umpqua!

One of the absolute best aspects of taking a trip with Bill is his knowledge of history, biology and geology of the river. Nearly every significant rock, bridge and cave we encountered had some unique and interesting story attached to it, and it makes the trip a veritable classroom. I have gone on three floats with Bill now, and I have always enjoyed his storytelling and knowledge. This trip was no different.

Soon we encountered our first set of rapids, and as we crashed and splashed through the class III waves (the river rapid ratings go from class I, easy riffles, to class VI, huge drops and dangerous maelstroms), we cheered and laughed. The water in the North Umpqua is incredibly cold though,  and within ten minutes my right hand was pretty much numb.

The first section is kind of a warm up – four class III rapids with numerous class II. We enjoyed the fun, relatively easy-going section,knowing that the real gnarly stuff would be coming after lunch. We paddled in unison, obeying Bill’s commands of “all forward”, and “forward three strokes.” You have to keep your peripheral vision on the person opposite you when you are in the front of the boat so that your strokes match, and it is a fun challenge to try to time it right. Dale and I seemed to match up with each other pretty well.

Paddling with Dale was also a delight. He has an infectious spirit, and his knowledge of the local Native American tribal history was another aspect of this trip I really treasured. He truly loves paddling and guiding, and I was so thankful he was on board for this trip.

The names of the different rapids – Boulder Hole, Dog wave, Cardiac Arrest & Weird Weir, are another fun aspect of any run down the river, and we passed through each with whoops, hollers and a great deal of laughter. That is the one thing I really enjoyed about this trip — the sheer joy we all seemed to feel as we passed through each obstacle, and how much we all laughed.

When we had gone about six miles, Bill had us pull over at Horseshoe Bend, where his wife Sharon had laid out a beautiful lunch for us. We ravenously wolfed down our sandwiches, chips, cookies and soda, and let the sun warm up our chilled bodies. I also took the time to switch batteries on my GoPro action camera, which I was wearing on my helmet, thus ensuring that I would have more than enough battery life to film the second section.

Sharon puts away the wonderful lunch she had prepared

Then we got all our splash wear and life jackets back on, got back on the raft (with Dave and Lynn taking the front position) and headed back out. I was really excited to tackle this section, especially since the most challenging part of the whole river – the class IV Pinball rapid – was in the heart of it.

At first I was a little disappointed to be sitting in the middle for the more exciting section, but later I was glad, since filming it with Dave and Lynn in the shot gave the rapids a better perspective, you could really see the water washing over them. Plus, since it was Lynn’s first whitewater excursion, she really needed to experience it upfront when it got crazy.

The names of the rapids on this section are: Toilet Bowl (III), Froggers I and II (both class III), Rollout (III), African Queen (III), Pinball (IV), Headknockers Moe and Curly (also both class III), and finally, Silk’s Hole (III). Between these are numerous class II rapids, making the seven mile section pretty much continuous rapids for most of its length.

I had been really anticipating going through Pinball in particular, since it is the most famous and notorious of the runnable rapids on the North (there are actually two class V/VI rapids further down, but they are particularly dangerous, so hardly anyone ever runs these.) When we were getting close, my heart started beating faster, and I felt a new energy in my paddling, but when we actually got to the rapid, I was somewhat disappointed. I had expected a rapid both big and technical, but it was mostly just technical. Now don’t get me wrong, I can understand why it is class IV, but it has more to do with being able to paddle like crazy, twisting and turning, dodging boulders and making sure you follow the right line. It is a long rapid, though, and we were all having to paddle nearly all the way through, but in short order, we had dispatched it, and coasted out into calmer waters.

I immediately knew I had to return to take on this section of the river in a kayak. For a long time, I had avoided running it because I felt that I wasn’t ready for it. Now that I had experienced it, I knew I could do it in a smaller boat.

After that, we still had three more class III rapids, the Headknockers Moe and Curly almost immediately after Pinball, and passed through them with more joyful shouts and hollers. Then a while later, we passed the final major obstacle, Silk’s Hole. Soon afterwards, we pulled up to the take out at Gravel Bin, and I had the same feeling I get every time a float is ending: Disappointment. I have yet to make a run down our beloved river where I felt that I had had enough, and this time was no different, despite 13 miles, 9 class III and one class IV rapid. It just never is enough.

Guess I will have to float the Colorado through the Grand Canyon sometime. I bet that will be satisfying enough.

The three days of adventure were through. I had made it, and now I was exhausted. It took me close to a week to recover, but it was so worth it. I would do it many times over if I could, and I found myself reflecting on the adventure with great happiness. This is what I live for, this is what my passion is. It was awesome.

My Destiny is to Climb.

Do you believe in destiny, in fate? Some do, some don’t, and mostly the argument seems to be about free will versus determinism, but I have often thought this is too black and white. Does it have to be one way or another? Can’t it be somewhere in between or a little bit of both? What if fate is simply what you decide it is, and if you live with conviction and faith in your desired destiny then perhaps the universe begins to align your experiences with what you believe. Maybe fate is malleable. In any case, that is what I tend to think, and I certainly have seen it at work in my own life, when all the parts and players seem to fall into place before I even arrive. I believe I am arriving at such a place in my life now.

Much of what I am now experiencing has come about by one factor alone: The surprising removal of severe chronic pain from my everyday life. In the fall, my pain had progressed to the point that I was seriously contemplating giving up climbing and outdoor adventures permanently, but after a few weeks of tortured soul-searching, I realized that I was not ready to give it up so easily, and decided that I would still pursue whatever level of climbing was available to me. Maybe I would never climb 5.12, but I could still do moderate routes, and I certainly could still climb easier mountains, and that would be enough for me. At least I would still be climbing.

Then, about two months ago, I discovered Tramadol, or as it is known by its brand name, Ultram. I had been experimenting with different medications, and had had little success in pain relief, but then I tried Tramadol, and to my utter astonishment, found that it removed 98% of my pain, and with little or no narcotic effect on my brain. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not closely experienced the unending agony I had been subjected to for something like 17 years, but anyone who knows me well has also been astonished by the results of taking this medication.

When I realized that this stuff was really working consistently, I knew what I had to do next: Climb. A lot. Make up for lost time. Allow my dreams to flourish. Start training (that is a big one for me since the most severe time of pain for me is the off season when I should be conditioning for climbing, and I was rarely able to get myself in shape.) I began to make plans, and I began to dream big. I might be 41, but I knew that if I could get the resources together, I could still climb the biggest mountains on the planet, and I could still climb 5.12 with some training (okay – a lot of training). That is where I am now.

Climbing partners began making themselves available to me. Even people whom I didn’t suspect being interested in climbing started asking me to take them on climbs. A fund-raising project – The Pain Project – has begun to take shape. I am now planning on making an attempt on my first really ‘big’ mountain – Aconcagua – in the winter of 2012-13. The plan for now is to climb more mountains this year than I ever have before, mostly regional peaks in Oregon, California and Washington with further forays into Idaho, Wyoming and British Columbia. I may be going on as many as three different extended trips, to the Grand Canyon in early June (not really a climbing trip), The Bugaboos at the end of August and the Wind River range somewhere in between or possibly in the fall. Thank God I have a supportive family.

I have always wanted to have a season where I just climb a ton of peaks, and this year is looking really promising. I believe in manifestation, and I feel the universe recognizes my passion for the ascent, and is rewarding me by sending plans and partners in large amounts. Plus, I have signaled to the Universe in turn that I am ready to take this seriously and commit to my calling. Taking action like getting in shape, giving up medications that were really slowing me down (while not really relieving my pain a whole lot) buying the necessary gear required for these ventures, budgeting my limited income to not only have the money and gear I need, but also by being responsible and getting bills paid first. Plus, I am praying more. I am not a religious person, but I am spiritual and really believe in the power of prayer as a means of manifestation. So, if you read this and feel the passion I feel for mountains, say a little prayer for me, would you? Ask the universe to grant me this heartfelt wish. Let me become the alpinist I know I can be. All I lack is the money and a few items of gear. I honestly believe that if I was given the chance, I could climb any mountain in the world. Yes, even Everest, yes, even K2. Time, however, is of the essence. I am not getting any younger.

I have entered a stage of life where many things are coming together in a sort of spiritual convergence. The ineffective pain medication has been left behind, I have been conditioning, I am focused like I haven’t been in…well, ever. The Universe has been speaking to me, giving me ideas, hunches and intuitions, and I have listened and paid attention. I don’t want a lot out of the world, I don’t have outrageous material wants, I don’t crave fame, I don’t need adulation, all I really want is health, a loving &  happy family, a comfortable financial situation and the means to climb the mountains of my dreams. I cannot climb all the mountains I want to, there simply isn’t enough time in ten lifetimes to do so, but if given the chance and the resources, I will climb absolutely as many of them as I can. This is my prayer, this is my plea.

I am ready.

So now what?

It has been close to two weeks with almost no pain. It seems so unbelievable that I can write these words so shortly after going through months and months of really intense pain, bad enough that I recently discovered that I had lost something like 25 pounds during that period. I now fit into a pair of jeans I could barely fit into when I purchased them six or seven years ago. Luckily my appetite has slowly been returning in the last couple of weeks.

I do not want to make the mistake of assuming that this will just continue, but I am very hopeful. I have been hopeful before, and seemed to have some success with other supplements and therapies, only to find after a few months that the original effectiveness has worn off. None of those other treatments could compare with the effectiveness I am experiencing with Tramadol, however, so that alone gives me greater reason for optimism.

I have been getting a lot done around the house in the last week, including cleaning nearly the entire house and doing every single dirty dish and almost all the laundry too. I seem to be so much more focused than I was before, so that seems to be an added benefit, although whether it is simply a side-effect of the drug or just the removal of pain that is allowing this I am not certain. I know my partner Brook is really happy to see such a clean home!

We have been having really bad car problems over the last week, so I have had to miss a bunch of school and also haven’t had the opportunity to take what feels like a brand new body out for a test drive. The weather has been pretty Oregon-esque lately — lots of rain, so there has been no opportunity for climbing at all, but I could be out there hiking and I would, but Brook has been needing me to watch the kids while she is in town. We should be getting our car back today, which will bring everything back to some semblance of normal.

When the car is fixed and we can start going into town on a daily basis, I am really ready to get to the gym and start taking advantage of this pain-free opportunity, getting myself into top shape during a time when normally I have historically been more sedentary due to pain. But, hey, I have no more excuses now, and by getting into great shape my pain will actually reduce further, so it is a win-win situation all the way around. I feel like some huge shackles have been taken off of me and I am free for the first time in many, many years – Free. I almost don’t know what to do with it.

But no, I do. Work hard, get in shape, start climbing and keep climbing, remember the opportunity I now have and don’t forget all that I have gone through and all that I have been held back from doing. Use this. I am forty one years old so I don’t have all the time in the world to get to the mountains I want to get to, I have to climb with an urgency and focus to get to where I want to be.

And where is that? Where do I want to be? What are my overall goals? What is the ultimate goal?

Perhaps surprisingly, I am not as enamored about going to Everest as I am to make am attempt on peaks like Denali (or as it less poetically known – Mt. McKinley, highest mountain in North America), Huascaran, Chimborazo, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, The Dom or any number of mountains equally as big as Everest but without the extremes of altitude and time required. In the time it requires to climb most Himalayan peaks (months), one could climb several of these peaks, if not more. No, I do not dream of Everest as much as I dream of going to places like the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range of Wyoming. Two weeks there with the right partner could result in ten or more high quality summits. No oxygen masks, no struggles just to take a step, just saner altitude issues to deal with, a lot more continuous movement and a heck of a lot more fun.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of me does want to go to Everest, just to test myself more than for the overall mountaineering experience, which has largely been ruined by the hordes and the chaos that goes along with it. If I had the opportunity to go I would but it would never become the goal of my life to climb in the Himalaya more than once or twice. I couldn’t be apart from my family for that long.

There are literally thousands of peaks in the continental U.S. alone, start adding in Canada and South America, and there are more peaks than a person could ever see, much less ever climb. I would rather climb hundreds of smaller peaks in this country than climb a handful of snobby high altitude mountains.  Besides, since most mortals can only reach the summit by the easiest route, and I now tend to favor technical routes over snow-plods, so lower-elevation mountains are really the only option for me.

Logistically too, the more ‘local’ mountains are much easier to access. It takes no more than a couple of days for climbers (in the western U.S. anyway) to reach just about any other mountain or range in the lower 48. I think it takes at least a week to walk to Everest Base Camp. By comparison, Mt. Gannet, the highest mountain in Wyoming, and one of the most remote mountains in the lower states, takes 3-4 days at most to reach its base.

And while it may seem that this is a classic case of quantity being more important than quality, but I believe that the best climbs, the most enjoyable ones, are the ones well below the death zone (26,000 ft approx.). So for me I am getting both quantity and quality with this tactic.

Going back to my original topic of feeling better, now that I am, I can feel the ambition in me, long suppressed, starting to arise with every day I feel good. Winter climbs, Endurance struggle-fests, Mixed climbs, all arenas I have not been able to participate in are now starting to creak open those rusty doors. Hmm. I have always wanted to really pursue this with everything I had, yet because of my body’s limitations it wasn’t even a consideration. The possibility of really pushing myself without worrying about the agony in my shoulders sounds awesome.

Now if only the weather would clear up for a time…

My Climbing Career (thus far) part III

Mt. Hood

We were nearing the Hogsback, the distinctive snow feature that divides the center of the Mt. Hood Crater just like a, well, a hogsback. This is the traditional ‘roping up’ spot where the climbing steepens just before the summit. We were five minutes below this spot, it was around seven in the morning, the air was crisp, clear and cold. The ascent through the night had been near-miraculous, with a full moon so bright we never put on our headlamps until we needed to look in a pack. The sun had just risen, we were making fair time for such a large group (this was another Obsidians climb) and I personally was excited to get onto the steeper terrain. This was my first truly ‘alpine’ mountain, that is, glaciated and icy, requiring the use of an ice axe, crampons (the spikes that go on the bottom of mountaineering boots) and a team of climbers roped together. Everything was going well.

Screams rent the morning air, a sound so shocking that every head was instantly looking in the direction it had come from. It was a woman screaming, and I turned in time to see a figure falling on the steep ice six hundred feet above us. I could tell that she was trying to self arrest with her ice-axe, the technique climbers are generally trained in before setting foot on a mountain like Hood, but the conditions were very icy and she couldn’t get the sharp pick of her axe to slow her rate of descent. Part of the technique of self-arrest is keeping your legs bent and your feet off the ice, since a single crampon point catching can mean a broken leg, and this climber was doing just that – until her ice axe finally caught, but due to her increasing velocity, ripped right out of her hands – at which point both feet came down, out of instinct, she couldn’t help herself, her crampons caught and she began an awful, cartwheeling descent down the steepest terrain on that part of the mountain. Her gear flew off of her and she repeatedly smacked her head into the slope as she rocketed down to the crater floor. From start to finish she fell close to eight hundred feet. When she slammed into the relatively flat bottom of the crater, she was clearly unconscious, and spun slowly towards an area of ‘hot rocks’ called the Devils Kitchen. She wasn’t moving. A climber ran out towards her, but everyone else, all several hundred of us, looked around in shock. It had been liking watching a car wreck.

Then unbelievably, another series of screams broke the air, once more from high above us. Our climbing group looked up to find the woman’s climbing partner literally running down the mountain in a panic, down a thirty-five degree ice slope – in crampons. Of course, the inevitable occurred, he stumbled, slipped, and began sliding on his backside down one of the deadliest mountains in the United States. We just watched, dumbfounded, as he took one of the most amazing rides I have ever seen. It was insane, he flew down the slope at what must have been forty-fifty miles per hour, but somehow managed not to start cartwheeling or losing control, and ended up slowing down below us, and I know I certainly thought he had it made.

Mt Hood is very much an active volcano. Climbers and vulcanologists are the only people who truly realize how lightly this giant is sleeping. Fumaroles, holes in the snow and ice that belch out poisonous vapors, litter the crater, and steam jets straight out of the crater walls. Unfortunately for this second climber, his ride wasn’t quite over.

I watched him slow, but even as he was almost stopped, he slipped over the edge of one of these fumaroles, and he disappeared from sight. Gone. No screams, no nothing, he just slipped and disappeared.

I turned to my climb leader, an experienced climber named Deb who was looking back up the mountain to see if anyone else was going to plummet from the mountain, and I could tell that she hadn’t seen the final part of the second climber’s descent.

“He just fell in a fucking fumarole.” I said, shocked at what I had just seen. Two climbers had just fallen 800 feet in front of us.

“What?” Deb said, her head swining to where the climber should have been. He was gone, of course.

“Do you have the rope?” Deb asked me a split second later.

“Yes” I said.

“Let’s go.” She said, and like that our climb became a rescue mission. We headed out across the crater ice, and Deb kept telling me to be careful and look for crevasses. As we skirted the area the climber had fallen into, we couldn’t believe our eyes. He was walking out of the Fumarole! Realizing he was okay, we diverted attention to the fallen first climber, who now had a small crowd gathered around her.

She was in and out of consciousness as we attended to her, and adding to the strangeness of the scene was the fact that one lens of her sunglasses had popped out and she was still wearing them. She had a knot on her skull that was bigger than any I have ever seen on a person before, and one of her lower legs was broken. We gave her all of our extra warm clothes and made her as comfortable as possible. Eventually an EMT and Wilderness First Responder arrived and booted us off the mountain, as we were starting to show signs of hypothermia. So we gave up our summit and headed back down.

This was one of the most important moments in my climbing career. Before this, I didn’t really realize how dangerous this business can be, and how sharp their teeth can be, and I saw with my own eyes how badly a climb can turn bad. I was quite shaken by what I saw that morning, and it took me four or five more tries before I summited Hood, by far the worst success rate I have with any mountain.

Ironically, the next week I climbed Mt. Adams, second highest mountain in Washington, and a couple in our party for that climb were actually friends with the people who fell on Hood, which shows how small the mountaineering community is. It was nice to know how appreciative the fallen climbers were, though. I also decided that I needed much more training, I realized during the course of taking care of these people that I didn’t know nearly enough, I felt like a fifth wheel. This accident led me to join Eugene Mountain Rescue later that year, and also made me understand just how dangerous this path I had chosen can be.

Years later standing on the summit of Hood

My Climbing Career (thus far). Part II

It’s funny to realize how far I have come in all this. From being that frightened kid climbing Mt. Thielsen to being someone who has climbed two thirds of the Cascade volcanoes, taught rock climbing for a community college, and climbed the Grand Teton. Since that first time, I have returned to climb Thielsen four more times successfully and had one unsuccessful winter attempt. In fact, it was funny, returning to Thielsen for the second time, over ten years since my first climb, and finding in the intervening years that the summit pinnacle was not nearly as bad as I remembered, and with all my experience, the climb was now much more fun than frightening.

Mt. Thielsen from the trail.

My second year of climbing was all about getting used to the mountain environment rather than getting over-ambitious. An older retired climber named Gary took me under his wing and was incredibly supportive, driving me to trailheads for conditioning climbs, rarely charging me for gas, and then just sitting there reading while I went off to climb for half a day. I hiked to the top of Black Crater, the Belknap Craters, and spent a day hiking all around Smith Rock State Park. I will always be grateful to him for his generosity.

What I remember the most about these hikes is the memorable one up Black Crater. At over seven thousand feet, this peak is one of the taller mountains in the area, though nowhere near as massive as the nearby Three Sisters. That winter and spring had witnessed one of the largest snowfalls in Cascade range history and even in late July there was snow just above six thousand feet. Gary dropped me off at a snow-free trailhead, where another vehicle was parked. I said goodbye to Gary and headed off up the trail. After a short distance, perhaps an eight of a mile, the snow began and the trail disappeared. Shortly after that I encountered the only other group on the trail, a young couple and their middle-aged parents. They had turned around when shortly after the trail vanished, but I continued on, having a fair idea about the lay of the land. I knew I could get myself up and back if I used my smarts and my compass.

For the most part this hike is in the trees, making landmarks impossible to see, but I could seen enough to keep me heading in the right direction, and after an hour and a half or so, I left the deep woods and open pumice slopes began to reveal the glorious vistas the McKenzie Pass area is famous for.

I had noticed that there were clouds in the sky, but they were innocuous looking enough, small, white cotton-balls that added to the beauty of the day. I honestly never felt any trepidation about the weather as I ascended higher towards the summit. Even as I reached the broad, cliff-edged summit, I paid little heed to the clouds. I was happy to have made it to the top with no trail and on my own.

On the very crown of the peak, on a little volcanic outcrop, a collection of strange bugs was swarming, weird, narrow beetles, and for some odd reason, seeing them there, swarming on the literal top rock of the mountain, made me feel uneasy, afraid even. Suddenly I knew I needed to get off the mountain, and now. I got out of there. The instinct was so strong there was no way I could ignore it. I hustled down the north side of the mountain, glissading (sliding) on the snow slopes, racing back into the bigger timber, and as soon as I was back in the trees, all hell broke loose.

Flash. Boom. Flash. Boom. Lightning would strike, and almost no time would elapse before the thunder would crash, deafening and cataclysmic. I ran, trying my best to keep going in the right direction, but more urgently trying to get down. I was on the tallest peak for several miles in either direction and this sudden thunderstorm was unleashing a bolt every twenty seconds or so. I raced through the woods, using only instinct to guide my way down, flinching and cringing with every flash and rumble. Amazingly enough, after about half an hour of running, I found myself on the trail again! My instincts had been dead on. I was feeling pretty satisfied about myself as I leapt over a fallen log a few hundred yards from the car and rolled my ankle. My ego suitably bruised, I limped back to the car with a little less pride.

That year, my second as a climber, after warming up on the previously-mentioned peaks, I also climbed Mt. McLoughlin, Diamond Peak, and South Sister, third highest peak in Oregon.

Mike and I were climbing McLoughlin in the early morning, once again with his pack dogs, Albert and Eva, the German Shepherds. We were in the big woods again, talking and hiking. In the distance we could hear a jet, and didn’t think anything of it. The next instant it was much louder, but it happened so fast, we didn’t have time to react. In the space between one moment and the next, the sound went from distant to ear-splitting, and I looked up in time to see an F-18 Hornet, fifty feet above the treetops. I could see it clearly, the cockpit, the wings, all of it, for one brief instant. The ground was shaking, the dogs scattered in terror and we just froze. Then it was gone, and the sound receded as quickly as it had come. I remember the two of us standing frozen, gripping our chests in fear, but already laughing at the experience. The dogs came back quickly and we resumed our hike.

McLoughlin's upper slopes (from a more recent climb)

The first several climbs I did with Mike, he was quite slow because of his severely arthritic hip and back, and he would generally give me permission to move ahead once we were within sight of the summit, since he could tell that I was going slower than I needed to. Climbing towards the summit of this gentle mountain, there were small puffy clouds in the sky just like the week before at Black Crater, and a feeling of anxiety grew in me as I ascended alone towards the summit. Several times I considered turning back, but I decided to push on, and soon enough I was standing on the summit rocks. My anxiety was undiminished with this, my second ‘real’ mountain. I snapped a couple of summit pictures and then raced off the mountain, meeting Mike about half a mile below the top. I told him of my fears and he sort of gave me a puzzled expression before heading up. I rested and enjoyed the views from 8000′. After a time I realized that there was not going to be a thunderstorm that afternoon, I was merely spooked. Mike, who wasn’t spooked, made it to the summit and enjoyed a much longer period on the apex before coming back down to meet me.

Climbing Diamond Peak a short time later began a long-time love affair with the mountain, and was also the first of many times I climbed and trained with the Obsidians, the climbing/hiking/skiing/biking club based out of Eugene.

The upper ridge to the summit of Diamond Peak (also a later climb)

South Sister, at 10,358′ is the third highest mountain in Oregon, but when the snow melts in mid-summer, a well-worn path winds its way up the peak’s gentle south side, skirting cobalt lakes and glaciers on the way. I slept in a borrowed car at Devils Lake, the traditional departing point for climbs from the south. At 5:30 in the morning I headed out, truly alone on a big mountain for the first time, winding my way through a dense forest for several miles before emerging  onto a broad, undulating plain above Moraine Lake.  South Sister dominates the horizon from west to east. After several more hours of dusty climbing, I found myself witness to one of the most astonishing mountain views in the Northwest. Middle Sister and North Sister, both above ten thousand feet, lie just a few miles to the north, while Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and astonishingly, even Mt. Rainier could be seen on this day, the latter lying nearly two hundred miles away! (On a later summit of the same mountain, I couldn’t even see Adams and St. Helens, much less Rainier.)

My second year of climbing had seen me climb a few smaller peaks and three bigger volcanoes, momentum had been established, and the dreams only got bigger. Now I was dreaming of snow peaks and glaciers, and envisioning an ice axe in my hands. I was ready for more. The apprenticeship continued.

My Climbing Career (thus far). Part I

I still remember vividly how frightened I was, standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at that nearly vertical, final eighty feet. All around me there was already massive exposure, standing on a ledge known as ‘chicken point’ that itself was only ten feet wide, and beyond it there was only air for thousands of feet to the pumice plain below. I had gone rock climbing once, four years earlier, but that had been on a crag fifty feet high on the edge of Ogden, Utah. This was entirely different.

The final eighty feet of 9182' Mt. Thielsen

I was on Mt. Thielsen, aka the “Lightning rod of the Cascades”, it was late September in 1998, and I was on my own. My friend and climbing partner, Mike, who had climbed the mountain multiple times but was also slowed by a severely arthritic hip and back, was some half an hour behind me. When I say I was on my own, I do not mean that I was alone, in fact there were around ten people on and at the base of the summit, but I did not know any of them, nor did I have rope, harness or the knowledge how to use them, but Mike had assured me that it was climbable without technical gear. Several of the climbers ahead of me were forsaking ropes and seemed to be managing just fine without. I sidled up to a couple of climbers who were belaying others in their group, and asked them for advice, and they told me what Mike had said, that it really was overkill to use a rope, but that a fall would be almost certainly fatal without one. They encouraged me to try, and offered the option of grabbing their line if I felt I needed to.

I still think it is funny that the thing that gave me the final impetus was watching a couple of much bigger, bulkier climbers ahead of me, and hearing the roped climbers comment on how they (the bigger guys) looked like a couple of mountain goats scrambling up the blocks of the summit. Hmmph,  I remember thinking to myself, those guys aren’t mountain goats. I am a mountain goat.

What I remember most about the actual climbing up to the summit was just the incredibly intense focus I experienced in each and every moment, with each handhold and each foothold, I just zeroed in on whatever I needed to do at that moment and nothing else. Everything fell away, all the unnecessary stuff in my life that didn’t pertain to what I was doing right then and there was gone, completely and utterly gone. I literally reached a state of satori, that zen moment of pure awareness and realization, but in this case it was a sort of mountain satori. I tested each hold before committing to it, each movement was precise and certain, because there was nothing else to get in my minds way. I was certainly aware of the exposure, but my fear did not rule me, it served a purpose to make me focused.

Then I was on top, on the card-table-sized summit, where literally everything around me fell away for thousands of feet. It was nauseating, at least that first time. My body had no frame of reference to compare it to, and so I gripped the rock and sat down, happy to have made the summit, but frightened to be so exposed and even more afraid to have to climb back down. That particular fear really clouded that first summit experience, I hardly got to enjoy it at all because I knew I still had the serious task of getting back down. I did take the time to peer over the north side, because Mike had told me how epic it is, and he was right, the north face falls away in a sheer three thousand foot drop. (On a later climb I would drop a stone from here and it took nine seconds to hit the Lathrop Glacier below.)

Looking down the North face to the glacier far below.

I think I stayed maybe five minutes on that first summit. All I really wanted at that point was to get down. Climbing up was one thing, but scaling back down those near-vertical rocks was not a task I was relishing. I was scared, so rather than delay, I chose to face it.

Once more that Zen awareness took over, perhaps even more so on the descent. In truth, I remember almost nothing about climbing back down, except feeling anxiety in the chimney section, which is the most insecure part of the climb, but I managed to get past it all, and returned to the relative safety of Chicken Point. The roped climbers congratulated me and told me I looked like I belonged up there. Pride washed over me to hear their words, and I don’t know if I realized yet how much my world had changed.

The rest of the day was a long one, much longer than I had anticipated, so much so that I returned home to a near-panicked family who had already called the Sheriff’s department. Despite having to sleep on the couch that night, I was elated, and for the next week I was in a state of post-satori bliss. I had never experienced anything like this before, and by then I knew I was hooked.

I wasn’t able to climb any other mountains that year, but I began to buy my first climbing guides and my imagination saw in these books something incredibly alluring, and from that a new path unfolded before me: The path of the mountaineer, of the voyager, exploring these high, great peaks because they are magical, and the road to them is magic too. I picked out a few peaks for the next year that I knew were easier novice peaks – Mt. McLoughin in southern Oregon, South Sister, which, despite being the third highest mountain in Oregon, had a summer trail to its summit, Diamond Peak and many others. I read everything I could get my hands on about mountaineering. I was obsessed. I began to plan.

I had been reborn. I was a climber now.